Television: A-list acting and cinematic quality lift crime drama out of pulp-fiction swamp

HBO produces a new genre-defining crime drama, a legal series loses the plot, and an aviation history nosedives

Fair cops: Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey in ‘True Detective’

Fair cops: Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey in ‘True Detective’

Sat, Mar 1, 2014, 01:00

The bare-bones setup in True Detective (Sky Atlantic, Saturday) could belong to any hokey yarn in a pulp-fiction crime magazine – the new HBO series even takes its name from one of the most popular in the often-ridiculed publishing genre.

Two mismatched detectives, an experienced, easygoing good ol’ boy and his new, uptight, book-learning partner, are the crime-solving duo on the hunt for a killer with a seemingly satanic obsession. Throw in a swampy location and it’s as familiar as can be. But even before you allow for the striking cinematic quality of True Detective , with HBO bringing its typically feature-film-sized budgets to the eight-part series, this was never going to be just another police procedural, because Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey, both A-list movie stars, are the leads. And they give extraordinary performances, right from the first scenes, creating mesmerisingly complex characters that hint at their dark secrets.

Harrelson is the laid-back Louisiana cop Martin Hart, and McConaughey is Rusty Cohle, newly arrived from Texas with his troubled, complicated world view. Nic Pizzolatto, the creator and writer of the series, gives him dialogue that’s almost poetic – these cops don’t talk about where their next doughnut is coming from or riff off each other about perps and pimps – and it’s a testament to McConaughey’s performance that it works. “This place is like somebody’s memory of a town and the memory is fading. It’s like there was never anything here but jungle,” says Cohle. “I just want you to stop saying odd sh*t,” Hart replies. “Like you ‘smell a psychosphere’ or you’re in ‘someone’s faded memory of a town’. Just stop.”

The action slips between time periods, drip-feeding information with the feel and pace of a good crime novel. In 2012 Hart and Cohle are seen interviewed separately about their investigation of the 1995 murder of a prostitute, Dora Lange, whose naked body was found tied to a tree in a desolate, rural part of Louisiana. The reasons for the interviews are revealed at the end of the episode: another body has turned up with the same ritualistic details, and the police suspect that, despite what Hart and Cohle thought, they didn’t catch the killer. The interviews are claustrophobic, in small airless rooms, in contrast to the panoramic scenes from 1995, and there’s a vague air of accusation.

Both men have changed in appearance over the 17 years, but Cohle’s screams a spectacular fall: from suited-up, skilled detective to scraggly-haired alcoholic. That transformation and the two former partners’ estrangement is at the heart of True Detective ’s central mystery, hanging in the air as tantalisingly as who killed Dora Lange. Just as The Wire, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad and ER are genre-defining TV series, True Detective , with its quality acting, cinematic look, pace, moodiness (helped by T-Bone Burnett’s swampy, atmospheric soundtrack) and character-driven plot, is likely to become the one that other detective duos are judged by.

The past two series of Silk (BBC One, Monday) have delivered top courtroom drama. The strong cast is led by Maxine Peake and Rupert Penry-Jones, and Silk is written by a former barrister, Peter Moffat, so apart from the drama of the court cases – the plots were tense and varied – there was the sense that you were getting a peek into the rarefied world of a London legal chambers. And the working-class, northern England background of Peake’s character, Martha, gave a layer of class complexity to her steely ambition.

But for series three – or at least this week’s first episode – she has gone from the outsider who got in and made good to being unbelievably out of control: in the first 10 minutes she shouts out in court, picks a fight in public with a judge, and dances alone to Joy Division at a stuffy formal party where her colleague Clive (Penry-Jones) is celebrating getting silk. Come to think of it, would they even have played Joy Division?

Meanwhile, the sketchy plot – the son of the head of chambers has been charged with the murder of a policeman – touches almost carelessly on the hot-button subjects of schizophrenia and police brutality. It’s as if the writer is looking for controversy without creating a satisfyingly coherent narrative.

It’s the first in the new series, so maybe Silk will get better, though Peake’s character shift suggests there’s no going back.

The second part of Alan Gilsenan’s history of aviation in Ireland, Pioneers and Aviators (RTÉ One, Thursday) could have come with the subtitle The Tony Ryan S tory . The Tipperary man is credited with inventing aircraft leasing through his company Guinness Peat Aviation (GPA), which changed the business model for global aviation. Through interviews with his employees at GPA it painted a picture of an entrepreneur who was driven, brave and fearsome – actually quite terrifying: grown men quaked – who perhaps met his match when Jack Welch of General Electric swooped in to buy GPA when it was on its knees. In one particularly odious exchange, Ryan is reported to have said: “Jack, you’re raping me.” “Yeah, you’re walking around with no clothes on,” replied Welch.

The film tracked the uncertain early days of Ryanair (but no interview with Michael O’Leary) and how State-owned Aer Lingus fought hard to keep the low-cost carrier out.

The aviation industry in Ireland came across as exciting, vibrant and in good health: in Dublin alone there are 30 aircraft-leasing companies, and the country is viewed as a global hub for the industry.

Last week’s first part was a satisfying historical overview from the days of Alcock and Brown, but too much of the second part felt like a comprehensive if workmanlike corporate video, with its bland Irish music swelling under a deadpan voiceover and multiple shots of office blocks and boardrooms.

It would also have been helpful to know, before watching the many contributions from the chief executives of Boeing and Avolon, that the programme was made, as the end frame said, “with the generous assistance of Avolon and with the support of Boeing”.

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